Conspiracies at the limits to growth
In an article on his website, economist Tim Watkins suggests a reason why governments nowadays make so many mistakes that people can come to believe that these mistakes are deliberate – for example, believing that sending elderly people with covid 19 back to care homes was so as to kill off other old people to reduce the pensions bill….In his view it is because governments are more incompetent than they were in the past…
“Central to the neo-liberal project was the belief that governments should play no role in the running of the economy. Anyone under-50 today probably takes this for granted. But those over-50 will remember a time when the state stood at the heart of the economy – operating and regulating the banking and finance industry; running a raft of major nationalised industries including mines, docks, railways, steelworks, energy, water and sewage, telecommunications and mail services; and directly running public services like health, education and housing. Today, all of those activities have gone – either dispensed with entirely or sold off to private corporations to do with as they please. Even the money supply – the thing which confers sovereignty on a state – has been handed over to the CEOs of private banks.
The calibre of the politicians we get to vote for has declined accordingly. In the 1970s, Parliament was far more representative of the wider population – including in its ranks former miners and steelworkers alongside business owners and former CEOs of British corporations. Today, former special advisors are the single biggest “profession” in Parliament; followed by lawyers – i.e. people who specialise in telling other people what to do rather than people who specialise in actually administering things.
Covid-19 has exposed Boris Johnson’s government as incompetent. But we would be mistaken if we thought that this was a specific problem relating only to this government. All of the neoliberal political parties exist solely to get themselves elected. The politicians are merely specialists in persuading gullible electorates to vote them into office and in pretending to be in charge while other people somewhere else do the actual day-to-day running of the economy. If you want a government which can successfully respond to crises like a global pandemic – or to looming resource shortages and a rapidly deteriorating environment – there is no point swapping the blue team for the red team unless and until you change the system that they operate in.
In the meantime the conspiracy theorists – the only people who still fall for the myth that someone is in charge – will continue to gain credibility as politicians make so appalling a trail of mistakes that it gets harder and harder to believe that they weren’t deliberate.”
If true this might also explain why people are not wrong to feel that “something is wrong” because something is – even if they are wrong to believe that the cock-ups have ulterior and insidious motives. In this regard the official conspiracies, if such there be, are not to intentionally and deliberately cause the damage, but the cover ups of official mistakes – as with Hillsborough, where police mistakes were blamed on the fictitious hooliganism of the fans.
In the meantime, while no one is in overall charge – there is plenty going on and plenty going wrong. In part this is because the privatised economy is riddled with corruption, as we have seen in part one, but not that only. There is also a global process, predicted first in the early 1970s, which explains why so many things appear to be going awry at the same time.
The problem is that economies are hitting against the carrying capacity of the planet and the limits of economic growth. The economy is too big for the health of the planet and this has real world consequences. Two of these are climate change and biodiversity collapse which are relatively widely recognised – though not taken nearly seriously enough. Less well known is the rising cost of extracting and generating energy because of fossil fuel depletion – while 85% of energy is still derived from fossil fuels.
Since a modern economy consists of human directed machines, infrastructure, devices and vehicles, all of which are powered, the rising cost of the energy resources has undermined the growth upon which the whole system depends if people and companies are going to have the wherewithall to service their debts. The crisis of 2008 was the result of a crime epidemic in the financial sector but not that only – it was also because, at a price of $140 for a barrel of oil, many people struggled to both pay their energy bills and service their debts. When, however, the oil and gas price collapsed because the economy had collapsed, the oil and gas industry struggled with waves of bankruptcies. At low oil prices the industry cannot recoup the rising costs of the fracking process, which is a more expensive way of extracting oil and gas. Another way of explaining the situation is to say that energy industries are trapped in a Catch 22 from which they cannot escape – either oil and natural gas prices are high enough fo the energy sector to recover their costs and make a profit but too high for the rest of the economy or, alternatively, oil and gas prices are affordable for the rest of the economy but the oil and gas companies operate at a loss.
Since a modern economy requires material resources, continued economic growth necessitates more land and water – pushing up the ecological footprint of economic activity in a way that undermines the biosphere. As ecological footprint analysis shows, economic growth is now demanding a greater area of biologically active land and water. It is as if the global economy is consuming 1.7 times what the planet has available.
The resulting ecological disruptions bring new configurations of plants, animals, people and diseases….both ebola and covid 19 are connected to land use changes that impacted the habitats of bats. Yet people who campaign against the corporations who are driving the land use change in a number of countries have been subjected to murderous intimidation as shown in part one.
The resulting differing crises are not overall the result of any elite plan – although they are all the result of the obsession that the economy must grow. However these crises do undermine the credibility of governments. Politicians and their “expert advisers” are being seen to flounder, out of their depth. What are the politicians and experts to say when the only thing that matters according to their ideological systems are “economic growth” but they are presiding over the largest break in growth in 300 years?
Even worse if, during a period like this, there is a continuous series of scandals – not just about incompetence but about the way that the economic crisis exposes a massive series of crimes. As is well known among economic historians, economic crimes are revealed above all during periods of economic crisis. As the saying, credited to financier Warren Buffet, goes “When the tide goes out you discover who’s been swimming naked.” It is when things go dramatically wrong that the real crimes are revealed. It is when no one trusts anyone else that a financial system implodes – the word “credit” is from the latin – “crederer” – to trust or to believe. When no one trusts anyone else they don’t lend anymore and so the money cannot be found to pay back others.
At times like this the temptation by the wrong doers is to defend themselves with distraction manoeuvres – or by doubling their bets rather than quit. As psychologists Kahneman and Tversky argued, in circumstances where all future outcomes look as if they are likely to turn out badly, people become prepared to take risks.
Where all future outcomes look potentially bad, there is a tendency to make gambles in which the gambler might conceivably reduce the scale of losses. As Kahneman says, this risk seeking behaviour “… is often observed in entrepreneurs and in generals when all their options are bad”. Presumably the same applies to politicians, their special advisers, crooked police and the security services too.
At such times we can expect that things will happen and the Russians will again be to blame. There will be more strange happenings that awake feelings of suspicion, that don’t seem quite right – as when by amazing coincidence, when novichoked British/Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are found incapacitated on a bench in Salisbury, the first person in the scene was none other than Colonel Alison McCourt and her daughter Abigail. And it just so happens that Colonel McCourt is the chief nursing office of the British army.
However we have a choice – we can take this at face value and not be “nihilistically skeptical” otherwise we would be ‘conspiracy theorists’….or we can take the risk and be suspicious in order not to be dupes…
To summarise – during the crises and contraction now that we have reached the limits to growth we can probably expect three kinds of things to happen – some of these things done covertly and thus constituting conspiracies…
Firstly, instead of helping and showing solidarity elites will show their true colours by exploiting the vulnerability of others when they can. Thus after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees broke the disaster was used to finish the project of transforming the Gulf Coast into a “tax-free enterprise zone,” as the Heritage Foundation called it…An article in Counterpunch explains:
“New Orleans before Katrina had about half of a million inhabitants. In the Katrina aftermath, 50 percent left. Before Katrina, New Orleans was a black town with a black mayor…It became a white town. There is an anecdote that I must tell…I was having a drink at a bar in the French Quarter…. There was a Blackwater guy talking with the bartender…. They were using the N word, and were saying: “The wrong people will leave, and that could be a good thing…” See: Katrina, in a sense, it is sort of like ethnic cleansing with a strong socio-economic ingredient. The poor had to leave…. The people who did not carry flood insurance, which was by the way part of a federal program…. Of course I had a flood insurance because I could pay…. But the poor couldn’t, so they lost everything…. In 10 years, New Orleans has lost 100,000 people, mainly blacks who were scattered to the wind… to Texas, Georgia. etc., wherever they had family who could welcome them…. $120 billions of federal money was allocated to New Orleans; 75 percent of it was spent on “emergency relief,” not to rebuild the city. They had no intention to rebuild…. They had no intention to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward or the Lower 7th Ward…. They had no intention to rebuild the poor areas…”
Hurricanes and their effects cannot be seen very far in advance so can this case of the aftermath of Katrina be a conspiracy – planned in advance? Of course the Hurricane was not planned in advance but aftermaths plans can be ….the idea of disaster capitalism is “never let a crisis go to waste”. Sooner or later a crisis will come along and money junkies can prepare contingency plans. In other cases, like military campaigns, more detailed plans can also be integrated for what will be done during “shock and awe” situations.
Secondly, since so many things will go wrong there will be conspiracies which are cover ups for elite incompetence and their failure to recognise that we are in a different era – one of contraction and catastrophe. A lot of so called experts – particularly accountants, economists and other expert advisers – will be found wanting or increasingly irrelevant.
Thirdly in a situation in which the elite repeatedly rescue their cronies but leave everyone else foundering there will be mounting discontent that will be responded to with distractions and PR stories – mainly by scapegoating other countries – the newspapers will tell us that the European Union, the Russians and the Chinese are to blame depending on the specific nature of the crisis. Critics will themselves be smeared and subject to character assassinations…Some of these will be elaborate conspiracies – like those cooked up to ensnare, smear and try Julian Assange.
In the meantime the newsmedia and the BBC will go on and on and on and on with nostalgia about the good old heroic days – to create a faux sense of national identity, a golden glow with union jack bunting, to bind us together with a nationalist mystique based on endlessly repeated fables of moth eaten greatness and togetherness – Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the Boat Race, The Changing of the Guard, Grouse shooting on 12th August, the cup final, pubs, dart boards, Wensleydale cheese, beetroot in vinegar, 19th Century Gothic churches, the music of Elgar, cricket on the village green, Antiques Road Show, Bake Ins, Strictly, Nannies, Upstairs Downstairs, Royal Weddings, royal babies…..spitfires, Bletchley Park, damn busters, bandits at 9 o’clock…until you feel like vomiting…
As industrial civilisation declines, expect more conspiracies as the ruling elite demands that everyone looks backwards…
(Thanks to Caroline Whyte for a number of valuable points made on an earlier draft.)
29th July 2020
1. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011, p. 276
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Brian Davey graduated from the Nottingham University Department of Economics and, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.